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Wozniacki leads field of Slam-less hopefuls

The footprints Francesca Schiavone left on the Roland Garros red clay last June were more than tracks tracing her trip to a historic triumph -- they were marks of her mentality.

Rather than loitering behind the baseline for the entire match, the 17th-seeded Schiavone focused on forward thinking. In a match of first-time major finalists, Schiavone won 14 of 15 trips to the net in subduing Samantha Stosur in straight sets to become the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title and the biggest underdog to rule Roland Garros since ninth-seeded Iva Majoli toppled top-seeded Martina Hingis in the 1997 final.

It marked the second time in three years a woman won her first career major at the French Open. Given the absence of four-time French Open champion Justine Henin, 2002 champ Serena Williams and former finalist Venus Williams, as well as the fact that Kim Clijsters' wedding dance accident will leave her short on clay play and long on adhesive tape wrapped around her injured ankle, will we see another major breakthrough in Paris this year?

Playing the waiting game can be vital on the slow surface that often rewards patience, but winning a major title for the first time often requires players to come out of their comfort zones. Mastering the moment between the lines often starts with managing the pressure between the ears.

"I would like to see more of the mentally tougher players in women's tennis," says Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo, who won the 1977 French Open mixed-doubles title, partnering with a kid from her New York neighborhood named John McEnroe. "[Maria] Sharapova always had that; the Williams sisters were always great for that, and so was the best clay-court player of this generation, Justine Henin. Players like Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic play so much alike, in my opinion, they don't quite squeeze the trigger when they need to. Victoria Azarenka, who played really well to win Key Biscayne, pulled out again with injury in Rome last week. These players make a big splash and go away for one reason or another. If I had to guess [a French Open favorite] right now, I would probably give the edge to the veterans like Sharapova and Clijsters, but there's no real edge so anything could happen."

Indeed, this might well be the most wide-open French Open field in years. With that in mind, let's preview notable players who are seeking to fulfill a first major in the City of Light.

No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki

Strengths: Consistency, quick court coverage and competitive spirit. One of the best movers in women's tennis, Wozniacki operates under the assumption that no ball is beyond her reach. Her dazzling defensive skills can shrink the court and coerce opponents into going for too much. Wozniacki has played deep into the draw in nearly every tournament this season, reaching seven semifinals in 10 tournament starts and collecting three titles: Dubai, Indian Wells and Charleston.

Weaknesses: While her backhand down the line is her kill shot, Wozniacki sometimes struggles to finish points on slower surfaces. Her second serve is attackable, and her topspin forehand can land short in the court against the tour's heaviest hitters. Wozniacki is not nearly as comfortable hitting her forehand down the line as she is on the backhand side; consequently right-handed opponents can cheat to their forehand side when engaging her in forehand exchanges, well aware she does not like to drive the forehand down the line.

Question Marks: How will she cope with the pressure of being the top seed in a draw devoid of former champs Henin and Serena Williams? In light of her recent clay-court losses to Julia Goerges (in the Stuttgart final and Madrid fourth round) and her semifinal setback to Sharapova in the Rome semis, how will the blonde Dane deal with the firepower from flat-ball hitters who have pushed her around the dirt this season?

Outlook: Coming off the French Open quarterfinals last year, Wozniacki is quite capable of going even further this time around.

No. 3 Vera Zvonareva

Strengths: Well-balanced off both the forehand and backhand, the 26-year-old Russian is fit, feisty and capable of playing all-court tennis. Zvonareva has played some of her best tennis in majors the past year, reaching three straight Grand Slam semifinals, including consecutive major finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Weaknesses: While she's become a much more mentally stable competitor in recent years, Zvonareva is still prone to periods of volatility on court. She's an emotional player whose inferno of intensity has alternately fueled her competitive fire and consumed her in creating implosions.

Question Marks: Clay is Zvonareva's least favorite surface; she has not won a clay-court crown since Prague in 2008 and began this week with a 3-2 clay-court record on the season. Since reaching the 2003 Roland Garros quarters, Zvonareva has failed to survive the fourth round in her past five trips to Paris.

Outlook: While Zvonareva can be a tough out, she has only one top-10 win in 25 career Roland Garros matches. A trip to the second week would be a good result for the woman who was a second-round casualty last year.

No. 4 Victoria Azarenka

Strengths: The 21-year-old Belarusian's bold, flat strikes enable her to overpower virtually any woman in the world when she's on her game and maintaining her competitive composure.

Weaknesses: Playing with passion without losing purpose or her temper has been a challenge for Azarenka, who is soft-spoken off court but can degenerate into screaming self-destruction on court. When stressed out, Azarenka sometimes struggles to finish what she starts: She's retired from nine matches in the past 17 months, including pulling the plug after the first set in two of her past three tournaments.

Question Marks: The 2009 French Open quarterfinalist has been bounced of the French Open first round in three of her five career appearances in Paris.

Outlook: Six of Azarenka's seven career titles have come on hard court, but she captured her first clay-court crown in Marbella last month and reached a career-high rank of No. 4. If she can keep her head together and not beat herself up emotionally or physically, a quarterfinal return is possible.

No. 6 Li Na

Strengths: Athleticism, agility and her ability to hit clean, fast flat shots. Li is proficient playing first-strike tennis.

Weaknesses: Clay has been a bit of a mental sinkhole for the 29-year-old Chinese player, who has never won a title on dirt and who has yet to surpass the French Open fourth round.

Question Marks: Will we see the Li who started the season on an 11-1 tear, reaching her first major final at the Australian Open, where she held a one-set lead before bowing to Clijsters? Or will the Li who endured a near three-month winless drought show up in Paris?

Outlook: Fresh off successive semifinals in Madrid and Rome, Li has had the best Roland Garros preparation of her career and could challenge for the quarters for the first time.

No. 8 Samantha Stosur

Strengths: A hellacious kick serve that sets up her formidable forehand. Stosur plays with the heavy topspin that can terrorize even offensive opponents and push them back into defensive positions well behind the baseline. Stosur was one of only two women to hit more than 300 aces last season and showed her clay-court skills in knocking off three current or former world No. 1 players -- Henin, Serena and Jankovic -- before bowing to Schiavone in the 2010 French Open final. The former top-ranked doubles player knows her way around the net: Stosur won the 2006 French Open doubles title with Lisa Raymond.

Weaknesses: Stosur routinely gives up wide expanses of court to run around her backhand and hit her favored forehand. Consequently, she's vulnerable to opponents who can go hard at her forehand, then force her to hit her backhand on the run. Nerves have gotten the best of the athletic Aussie at times.

Question Marks: How will Stosur respond to defending her ranking points from reaching the 2010 final? While she's a capable clay-court contender, Stosur simply does not match up well with some top-10 opponents. She is 0-8 versus Maria Sharapova, 0-4 versus Azarenka and 0-2 versus Petra Kvitova.

Outlook: If the draw breaks her way and she keeps her nerve in check, a final four return is within reach for the third straight season.

No. 9 Petra Kvitova

Strengths: A lethal left-handed serve that can drive opponents off the doubles alley on the ad side. Kvitova's curling cross-court forehand and soft hands around the net make her one of the most dangerous players in the top 10 when she's hitting her spots with her shots. She's won three titles this season, beating No. 2 Kim Clijsters to capture the Paris Indoors and defeating three top-10 players to win Madrid.

Weaknesses: The 6-foot Czech is not the quickest player around the court, so she doesn't consistently defend as well as other top-10 players. Fitness was not her forte last season, but her endurance has improved this season; she is 7-3 in three-set matches.

Question Marks: Typically, Kvitova gets stronger as a tournament progresses, but she has been vulnerable in early-round matches against lower-ranked players. Four of her six losses have come in the first or second round. Can she sustain consistency and concentration from the first match of the tournament?

Outlook: A year ago, Kvitova was wearing braces, was ranked No. 62 and had never won a grass-court match when she stormed to the Wimbledon semifinals. Although she's sometimes susceptible to surprising early-round upsets, she might well have the biggest upside of any woman younger than 21. If she can survive the first week, she is a threat against any woman in the field.